Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology, Harvard University, Massachusetts, USA
Sometimes we win, but rest of the time we learn. Most of what we try fails, but these failures, which force us to grow, are often invisible because only the success stories are made visible. What are the core traits that make scientists stand out? There are a few that are always mentioned: persistence, focus, adaptability, confidence and passion. Yes, you must be smart and you must acquire knowledge of your specific area, but without the persistence and passion most ideas remain deeply buried while we distract ourselves with Candy Crush. I was always stubborn, passionate, uncomfortable with standing still, and I never liked Candy Crush.
In 2004, I was a 22-year-old biomedical laboratory scientist working in a clinical laboratory in Sweden. The job was meaningful and fun. I was great at my job, responsible, learning fast, and taking on long shifts. The rewards were instant both in terms of making a difference to someone’s health, as well as the financial stability that came with the job. However, despite all that, I was still not satisfied. I had questions; I needed to be challenged. Those moments were defining for my research career. I didn’t know much about pursuing a PhD or about funding, and even less about the career path that came after, but I knew that I was seeking knowledge and that I was willing to work hard. At the time, it was highly competitive to be hired as a PhD trainee in Sweden, since it was considered a job and not purely research training, and the academic job market was saturated. After two years of graduate coursework and research projects, a principal investigator (PI) agreed to take me on as a PhD trainee if I would work for him as a “shadow PhD trainee”. After a year with minimal supervision, I had an unofficial interview where I was asked three questions: why do you want to do research? When are you starting a family? Can you commit to doing an eight-year, partly self-funded PhD, by working in a clinical laboratory part-time?
I failed my interview and I was told that there was not enough funding for my position. I was heartbroken and jobless. Having spent a year as a low-paid “shadow” PhD trainee and with a student loan to repay, my personal finances demanded that I return to the clinical laboratory. The job was interesting and well-paid, and within a few months I knew how to determine most of the disease-causing bacterial strains from different body cavities. There were occasional red flags – comatose patients or resistance to antibiotics – but the majority of the workload was routine, hence I was constantly re-assessing my goals and dreams. However, the unsettling feeling of repeatedly reaching the same answer to the question, “Is this me, 10 years from now?” haunted me. It was getting louder every day. Once the financial burden of my student loans was lifted I decided to change my career path. I pressed the submit button and four months later I was accepted to the prestigious Wellcome Trust funded four-year PhD program at the University of Cambridge, UK.
In between beautiful, ancient colleges, there were paths that distinguished scientists had walked while pondering ideas that changed our perception of the world – and I was now following in their footsteps! With a strong passion for discovery and a drive to generate new knowledge, I dived into the unknown waters of the field of cardio-epigenetics. In 2008, the concept that terminally differentiated cardiomyocytes have dynamic epigenetic states, was wild and intriguing. Three years later I had contributed to several papers showing that the healthy human heart had specific DNA methylation patterns that were different from a diseased heart or cardiomyopathy. I set up in vivo models for cardiac imaging and surgery to test my hypothesis. I held workshops and formed new collaborations, yet my four-year PhD funding was coming to an end without a “first author” paper. In addition, my PhD advisor decided to take his science where there was more funding and more opportunity to create start-up companies, and left the UK to set up a new laboratory in Singapore. This decision was difficult since I was still gathering the in vivo data from the mouse strains that had to be transferred to Singapore. Working on genetic lineage mouse models takes a significant amount of time; strains need to be backcrossed and the correct controls generated. There is also biological variation to consider, and the data have to be highly reproducible, even if you transfer the strain across the globe. The paper was either to be finished in Singapore or dropped.
I had exciting results that I wanted published. In addition, a junior scientist has relatively low value in the scientific world without original, peer-reviewed, first-author papers. Without such publications, acquiring funding for a postdoctoral position becomes challenging. Mindful of these challenges ahead, I made the courageous decision to leave life as I knew it in Europe and move to Singapore to complete my study.
Within six months, I had transferred the mouse colonies, samples and myself to Singapore, and subsequently submitted and defended my PhD thesis. At the Singaporean research laboratories, which were highly technologically advanced, I had access to the latest equipment for transcriptomics and epigenetics. Still, to set up a new laboratory in a new country with a different administrative system, is challenging. There were protocols that needed to be approved and procedures to establish. I also had to train new staff and students. Building collaborative networks outside of Singapore, required enormous effort.
I tried to maintain the professional network that I established during graduate school in the UK, by reaching out to collaborators and attending international meetings. During an American Heart Association conference in the US, I was talking to one of the experts in the cardiovascular field and I was offered a postdoc position in his laboratory at Harvard. The project sounded amazing and I would have an opportunity to work with well-known researchers at a world-class university! I was elated but I also wanted to gather facts and think carefully about the job change. I visited a few other laboratories across the US before making my decision. I noticed that some of the labs were well-funded, published well and were also highly competitive and extremely challenging environments. Another interesting observation was the different lab structures that I came across, where priority was on hiring postdoctoral staff over graduate students and technical staff. Postdocs came already trained with various levels of independence and were prepared to stay between five and seven years for high- impact papers. Surprisingly, I also experienced that a lack of confidence is often interpreted as a lack of knowledge and this contrasts with the research culture that I experienced in European countries, where confidence is sometimes viewed as arrogance.
After considering all the pros and cons, I decided to accept the position at Harvard and moved to the US from Singapore. It is said that successful scientists must stay focused on achieving their goals, believe in their work and maintain a positive attitude. Every day must be productive, in terms of fellowship applications, grants and experiments. Foreign postdocs in the US have only few options for postdoctoral fellowships, which means that they are highly competitive. It is usually a good idea to apply to fellowships within the first two years of your postdoc because of the five-year cap (post-PhD), with the success rate decreasing each year. The review board considers everything from your yearly productivity, to your mentor and the training program. Essentially, you should work on a project that already has preliminary data in a lab where people move on to successful tenured positions. Receiving a postdoctoral fellowship is not only a way to demonstrate that you are able to obtain grants but it also gives you more freedom in pursuing your ideas during your postdoctoral training since you are not depending on a salary from your PI.
I’ve been working in the same lab for five years now. The US-based labs create a fantastic opportunity for both professional and personal growth and provide access to superb intellectual capital from across the globe. They foster a dynamic environment that encourages creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. The pace of work is high, and vacation time is rare. Colleagues in the lab often become akin to your family since you spend most of your time together. Furthermore, living in a cosmopolitan city, such as Boston, often means that living costs are high and you have a tight budget.
I have not received any “on paper” professional benefits from my international career. However, it has enriched my professional and personal life, with large professional networks, new friends, new perspectives, and less fear of the unknown. Most scientists that I have met are indoctrinated into the educational system within the borders of the country where they are working and living. Despite science being a field that is forward thinking, there is surprising rigidness and lack of comfort regarding changes to the system. So, why would anyone expose themself to the challenges of an international career if it is not recognised as a valuable skill? The system only recognises high-impact publications as productivity and not the ability to adapt to change and overcome failures. Nevertheless, I don’t regret my international experience. I have developed a breadth of knowledge and a multidimensional view of my national identity; I see myself as more of a world citizen. Whether or not being you’ve been exposed to an international postdoc experience, on a personal level, many postdocs realise that hard work and talent do not always result in high-impact publications. These highly competitive environments can trigger anxiety due to a feeling of constant failure. Many postdocs are in their mid-to-late thirties and find they have stalled their life plans to reach certain career milestones, while their peers in non-academic or non-scientific fields have already progressed to higher corporate positions and a more settled lifestyle. Despite the huge desire to make a difference, many start questioning if they can truly fulfill the expectations of academia, or if they should instead change their career path. In most professions, increase of competence among staff is encouraged and promoted, but somehow this is not entirely true for the academic environment where the highly skilled trainees are forced to take alternative career paths or to start over.
The saving grace in these situations is to truly identify your passion, despite exhaustion from trying endlessly and receiving scarce rewards. There are countless mornings when I wake up with new questions that I want to answer and I feel that there is nothing else in the world that I would rather do. When I have lost more times than I have ever won and I am no longer sure of how many more times I can start over, it is persistence, focus, adaptability and passion that push me forward.